There’s no question about it: Laurent Garnier is Boiler Room royalty. His set from Dekmantel 2013 is now pushing two million plays, and deservedly so. Over more than a quarter century, the Frenchman has risen to a position of elder-statesman techno superstardom along with the Richie Hawtins and Carl Coxes of this world, while somehow keeping a kind of engagement with ultra-diverse styles that sometimes makes him more resemble a Gilles Peterson.
This year he has released not only the La HOME Box collection of recent singles, but an English translation of his already-notorious memoir Electrochoc (order it here with the album) – which not only tells the story of his life in clubs from the early eighties onwards, but lays out a philosophy of music that many would do well to learn from.
In the light of all this, BR contributor Ian McQuaid spoke to Laurent, and found him in typically thoughtful-but-outspoken mood. Over the course of this Q&A, Laurent lays it down about racism, retro-ism, the strength of the French scene, and the intolerance of EDM fans. If you want to know how he can listen to seven hours of music a day on top of DJing, or why he’d rather play before Sting than Martin Garrix, then dive in…
IAN MCQUAID: I want to ask about how different things are from when you started – you were part of a new wave of DJs, house and techno still seemed very new, but now…
LAURENT GARNIER: There’s a bit more revival, indeed, yes.
And what are your feelings on that?
Well, I think we’re arriving in maybe the third generation of dance and techno music. And some of these guys now grew up and basically they were listening to their parents’ music. And I think now there’s such a good, strong history about this music. Young guys who are coming into this music want to know and understand what their parents are talking about.
“Who is coming back in France, they are probably the most relevant, interesting DJs”
So maybe that’s why why there are so many [older] guys who are coming back now. In France, and I know in England it’s the same: a lot of the DJs who haven’t been deejaying for a long time are coming back and playing again in all the big raves and big parties. And as long as the music is real and they’re playing something right, as long as they’re not coming back just to catch some money and disappear again, as long as they’re coming back for the right reasons, I don’t see what the problem is.
Also I don’t know in England, but the people coming back in France at the moment, they are probably the most relevant, interesting DJs. Because the kids want to know what happened in the past, and they want to understand a bit more about the story about all this music. So I don’t see what the problem is.
And is there anyone you mean particularly, where you say the more interesting ones are coming back?
Well, in France, Manu le Malin is becoming big again. And DJ Deep, who hasn’t played much for years, is becoming a very, very big DJ here again. These are, for me, the most interesting French guys. Of course, there’s more examples, and it’s really good! I love these guys – even yesterday, I went to listen to a very old friend of mine who I haven’t seen DJ for a long time, and it was great to hear him. It was wonderful.
It’s interesting, though, that whilst maybe the DJs are coming back, most clubs or raves or festivals, their client base is pretty much still the same age it ever was, isn’t it?
Yeah. I think we are getting older, it’s just the crowd is staying young. Of course. I mean, of course that makes complete sense. Clubs and festivals usually have always attracted a young crowd; it’s us getting old. We should question ourselves, not them.
In the book, you actually write about how you started getting booked at EDM raves, and you found there was a change in style of playing – around 2010, 2011 – that threw you off a little bit. Have you had to change and adapt?
I always played the music I liked, and even though the equipment has changed – we’re using new tools because the technology has changed a lot – it hasn’t really affected the way I’m playing, because I’ve always played very much with my heart and always played records I liked. I have my way of playing records. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I think I’ve always had my way of mixing different things together, doing very long mixes and stuff, and I’ve always fought as well to have time to play. I need more time to be able to express myself, but today you see a lot of the younger generation wanting to play shorter and shorter sets, because they want to make it more intense or something.
“You can pay me as much as you want. I will not go if you only give me fifty minutes”
I’m not into that kind of thing. I’ve always liked to have time. I think it’s a real quality to be able to have time when you DJ, because you have more time to tell a story and take people with you. So for that, no, I haven’t really changed, I’m still fighting to get as long as I can to DJ, because it’s the way I like playing. So I know what I like, and I’m very lucky because today, I can actually choose where I’m going. I’ve never done it for the money: I think that’s been very clear for years. And now, I’m getting a bit older and seeing I’m very lucky, because while a lot of people are still asking only what they can get paid as a DJ, I can just go to places where I want to go, where I feel good, and where I think I’m going to have the best time. So no, I haven’t really adapted my way of playing, no.
The short sets have to do with the “pack em in” booking policy of festivals too, right? The bills are stuffed.
It’s only up to us to accept it or say no. You have festivals that are packing DJs one after the other, just for the sake of having more and more people catering to their festival. But on the other hand you do have other kinds of festivals that are a little bit caring more about music, where you can have a conversation with them, and you can actually talk and find ways of being able to play longer. At the end of the day, though, it’s the artist who can say yes or no.
So usually – in fact always, really – if somebody calls me saying, “I’d like you to play at my festival. I’ll give you fifty minutes,” it will be a straight no. There will be no talking at all, because I wouldn’t do it. I don’t want to do it. And I’ve never accepted that kind of thing. Always tried to avoid that. But at the end of the day, some people do it because they’re getting very much paid for that. To me, money’s never been my thing, so you can pay me as much as you want. I will not go if you give me fifty minutes.
I feel like you’re known for being a techno DJ who plays outside of techno. I always remember you playing drum’n’bass, and there’s a good part of a chapter in your book devoted to dubstep…
Heh, I’m a DJ and I’m supposed to play music. That’s it. It’s like, for me, music is like food. If you eat the same thing every day, it gets really boring. So if I would only play strictly house or strictly techno or strictly dubstep, without listening to what’s happening around and trying to incorporate some other things to spice up my set, it would be boring. It’s like me at home, I don’t just listen to techno. I listen to classical music as much as reggae as much as jazz, luckily, otherwise my life would be boring. So yes, I love techno. It’s a music I’ve always defended. But for me, without house, without playing a bit of drum and bass or dubstep or whatever or bass music… you know what? I think I would have stopped a long time ago. Because I would have got bored.
Those decisions to go wider in genre don’t seem to be to be an option when people are giving sets that are an hour long, because it would just lose cohesion…
But again, why should you accept an hour-long set? It’s boring. You cannot express yourself within an hour. It’s impossible. For me, it’s absolutely impossible. For me, everything is very important when you go and DJ: the room, the sound, the time, the crowd, the moves. There’s a lot of things that make a good party. It’s not just playing hits one after the other. That’s bullshit. That’s just too easy. The nicer thing is to take people on a journey and try to really go far, and that, you can’t get that within five minutes. You need time. Usually it takes a good half an hour to get to the same level to the crowd and sometimes longer, so within an hour?
So yes: I’ve found the shorter you play, the less diversity, and the less tracks you play – if I would only play one-hour sets, all my sets would be very similar. I think I would try to search for the most obvious records that will hit the crowd, instead of when I have three or four hours and I’m allowed to take time and I’m allowed to go deeper, and I’m allowed to break for ten, fifteen minutes and to break down things so I can build it up again. So I take more risks. You do take more risks when you have time. So I think the shorter you play, the less – how can I say – creative, I think, DJs get.
In the book – and this is pretty rare for someone in your position to stick their neck out and do this – you actually specifically name some DJs that you think are just there to collect a cheque. You mention acts like Benny Benassi, and I think Dada Life gets a shout-out. Have any of them responded?
Frankly, one time I played after Dada Life, and to me it was one of my worst experiences ever, playing after them. It was horrible, because, okay, the show got the people completely mad and crazy, fair enough. But my idea of deejaying’s not actually playing things that people expect or doing a show like that. And I think I should have never been in that room, basically. It’s not Dada Life’s problem. I think the biggest problem on that night was the guy who did the lineup — why the fuck did he put me with them?
Same when I played before Martin Garrix. Fucking awful. It was awful, because before me there was Jeff Mills — no one danced. When I was deejaying for two hours, nobody danced whatsoever, and as soon as Martin Garrix got on, he played “Animals,” and everybody went crazy. So I think it’s two different crowds, and we are creating for completely different people. I can play after a heavy metal band, I can play after a punk band, I can play after a jazz band. But playing after those super-over-commercial guys that are more into fairground music than anything else, for us, it’s the worst. It’s the worst. So now, for sure, I will never do it again. I’ve done it twice, and then the third time, I had the same experience. And the three times I’ve done that… play with DJs like that. For us, it’s awful.
“Who would fuckin’ open his set with his main tune?”
Who was the third time with?
I can’t remember, I can’t remember. It was a guy playing super-over-commercial dubstep. I thought it was going to be all right, because I just followed him with proper dubstep, and it just didn’t work. Because the music I played was not commercial enough, and it’s just a problem sometimes with the tunes. Those guys – I’m not talking about the DJs, but the crowd that follows this stuff – they’re so into these over-commercial big hits and tunes and stuff like that. They cannot listen to anything else. Where a rock crowd, a drum and bass crowd, or anything that is a bit more underground, are used to listening to different things.
I remember. In England, the beginning of rave, people were going to listen to the Happy Mondays as well as listening to 808 State as well as listening to Todd Terry. It was no problem. People were used to listening to everything, and there’s a lot of festivals still now, where you know… once I followed Sting and Guns N’ Roses! And that was no problem. There was no problem whatsoever. And everybody danced. The same people danced. But when you come to these super, super-commercial things, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work.
As I’m saying, when we played before Martin Garrix, me and Jeff — we couldn’t get it. No one danced. I had kids, they were like eighteen years old, just looking at us, thinking, “What the fuck are these guys doing?” They couldn’t understand anything we were playing, and believe me, I was trying to find the right thing, because wherever I am, my job is to make people dance, and if I can’t make them dance, I’m trying very hard to find a way to get them. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
And then Martin Garrix got there, and he just opened his set with “Animals” — I mean, who would fuckin’ open his set with his main tune? And he opened his set with “Animals” and then the whole room became crazy. And actually again, it’s not Martin’s fault. I went to the organizer, and I went to the guy who did the lineup, and I said, “Why on earth did you do that? That was a super-big mistake,” and he said, “Yeah, we tried to mix things up.” I said, “You can’t do that. I just doesn’t work.” It doesn’t work.
So it’s true. I mean, I don’t care if these people exist. They do commercial music and I have no problem with that. But I’ve never been too much of a fairground person. Well, not in music. For me, music is a serious business and you don’t fuck about… I mean, where the fuck will these guys be in two years’ time? Come on. You’re a journalist; you know very well. The amount of people that come in and come out — I’ve been in and out, and a lot of people have been trying to sell us some over-commercial stuff, and you know within two years they’ll be gone. You know that. You do know that. Of course.
Sure, but to use a counter-example, you give some time to David Guetta in the book. You’ve got quite different feelings on him.
No, it’s different. David is different because David has been doing it for twenty, twenty-five years… I guess nearly thirty years, because we started together. I don’t like his music, I’m very clear in the book regarding that. But I know David does it because he truly loves it, because he’s always been like that. Twenty-five years ago, he was exactly the same. He was defending he same things. And I know for a fact that David does it because he loves what he does. But I’m not sure about a lot of the other ones. Maybe some are very honest, then, and that’s fine by me.
But the reason why I always talk about David is because first of all, he’s changed the whole radio thing in America. If you look at his history, the way dance music and urban radio changed completely was because of some of the records with David: I thought that was quite interesting to point out. And as I say in the book, I’ve never been into the music David plays, which is why I’m saying what I respect about him is he loves what he does. And he’s always been like this. When I met him twenty-five years ago, David wanted to cater to big rooms and play super-commercial music. And, well, I can’t complain when someone is truly into what he does, and sometimes I doubt when I see some people, but him, I know he does it for the right reasons. But I still don’t like his music. And I don’t do gigs with him.
That’s come across, heh. You just said it five times. You don’t like his music.
No – but all these guys have space to exist. You’ve really got to understand, everybody has space to exist. But if it’s becoming something for money, then I don’t like it. Then that’s not my thing. I’m sorry. Maybe you’ll find that very boring or whatever, but I’ve always been like that. Money has never, ever been interesting to me. Never. It’s always been the love for music.
“France is the one place where the very commercial EDM stuff has never, ever happened”
A lot of dance culture was quite rebellious in its nature, though the eighties and into the nineties. It was a desire to have fun against the mainstream. Do you feel that something gets lost when that rebellion is tamed a little bit, as it has been somewhat in recent years?
It has and it hasn’t, because I see the way the underground scene’s evolving in France: there’s a big rebirth of underground in France, and new clubs that are super, super-underground, with amazing, amazing lineups and amazing music and amazing DJs ninety percent of the people have never heard of. It really caters to the underground and that takes passion, you still have some people fighting for something that is not the everyday, mainstream life.
Just yesterday I realised that in Paris, on that Sunday night, you probably have six or seven parties that would all together cater to about ten thousand people on just that night. And those parties would be packed with super-cool underground DJs. Lyon is the same. And at that very moment I was in Marseilles, and we were on the rooftop: there were two and a half thousand people there – on a Sunday night, and there’s another three or four clubs going off in the city at that moment too.
Now, in France, for the last two and a half years, there’s a whole other new generation coming in, and they’re really fighting for good clubs and music. And France is the place where the very commercial EDM stuff has never, ever happened. Never. It doesn’t happen. We’re still packing rooms with fifteen thousand ravers with Derrick May, DJ Deep: good underground music. And they’re still selling tickets now, all the time. I’m playing at a festival called Peacock in about three weeks’ time, and the lineup is just tremendous. And if you look at the lineup of the other festival that happened in Paris last weekend, it attracted thirty or forty thousand people. So France is really, really happening at the moment.
Is there real musical innovation happening too, though?
I think now a lot of the young generation are listening to a lot of different things, from old-school disco and Chicago and Detroit to more cut-up bass, wonky beats, and the mixture between grime and hip-hop and bass and stuff like that. This is happening over here as well. You have a lot of people following that. So you can find a very, very different kind of music in different clubs. I think the kids are very open-minded now. This music is super-diverse. They have internet, so they listen to a hell of a lot of things.
And the creative kids are coming from everywhere in Europe and around the world. I think now they’re much more aware than just when one city was listening to very hard gabber and then the other city was listening to breakbeat, and then London — well, OK, London has always been very open-minded – but when you had one music from Detroit and another one from Chicago, another one from Paris and stuff. Now it’s all very mixed together, and I think the kids are used to listening to everything, and they have a very, very good knowledge, really.
I heard a rumour that you have to listen to every promo that you get sent.
I try to, but I can’t. I’ve been trying to, very, very hard, because I think I’m very lucky, because people send music for free, which is wonderful, and I think the least I could do is thank them for that. But now the problem is, you receive so much. I receive about two hundred promos a day, so if you don’t have time, basically you can’t physically listen to all this. So I try to listen to as much as I can. Of course, there’s PR companies that you know because you’ve been working with them for a long time, sending you music that touches you more than other PR companies. So there are a couple of people, a couple of places, that I listen to everything all the time, and then some other ones, unfortunately, when I get too much, I don’t. But I usually listen to music between five and seven hours a day. I’ve been at it since seven o’ clock this morning.
Between five and seven hours a day?
How are your ears doing? Are they okay?
Well, you have to. You have. I’m trying to know what’s happening, and the thing is, I don’t only listen to house and techno, because I like listening to hip-hop and different things. So this is why it takes a long time. But there is so much music out there, and you know what? Even if you listen to five or seven hours of music a day, you still listen to a very, very small percentage of what’s coming out. I mean, if you start looking at the blogs and start really digging and looking at what’s happening, there’s so much more than what you see. I think I only see the tip of the iceberg. That’s it.
I don’t think anybody today can say, “I know everything about techno. I know everything about house.” It’s impossible. There’s so much. It’s absolutely impossible. Every time I discover something, and you start searching around, there’s another twenty labels around. “Why didn’t I know about this before?” Every time I discover a new label or something new, this guy has a label, and he’s got five subdivision labels. It’s just crazy. It’s just too mad. There’s so much, it’s crazy.
“I have at least fifty new tracks that I really want to be played every single week”
The interesting thing about when vinyl was the DJ tool of choice was that it was a filter in some ways, because it stopped a lot of music coming out. And now that filter’s been taken away, anyone can release. I imagine that’s just added a lot more confusion to your day.
It is more confusion. Or… I don’t know if confusion is the word, maybe, but do I think there’s just far too much music and we are drowned in music. At first there was the vinyl, which used to cost a lot of money, and then you used to have to record shop, which worked well at filtering things down. So when you were going to a shop, you had, already, two or three filters that narrowed down the choice of the music. Now, because everybody can put things everywhere, of course there’s much more. Too much.
BUT… I’ve never heard so much good music than for the last five years. So, in one way, yes it’s a bit too much, I agree with that, it’s very difficult. But then on the other hand, everything’s in reach. Now I’m getting so many exciting records. So many. Before, you used to change your record box – if you take a normal record box, it’s about eighty records – maybe every four months. Now I think it’s every single week, I have the equivalent of a new record box. I have at least fifty records, fifty brand new records a week. If I do my records properly, I have at least fifty tracks that I really want to be played every single week. Fifty new tracks! Which is already nothing compared to what’s going out. It’s such a small percentage. So, yes, it’s harder, but then it’s our job to search for the good records.
And how do you feel about playing your own tunes? Because I’ve spoken to some DJs that hate playing their own productions. People who make great tunes, but they’ve got a thing, they don’t want to. Are you comfortable playing your own records? Where do you stand on that?
I don’t play very much of my music, no. It’s very rare. You know, the La HOME Box is coming out, and I haven’t played any of the tracks from that for the last five or six months, I think. Maybe one, but I’ve even stopped playing “Enchanté” and “Confused” or ones from the new one, because I never felt too comfortable to play too much of my music. There’s so much good music out there without mine. I’m very happy to play other people’s music. You know when you release a record? You’ve been hearing it so much that I need a break from them. So I need to play something else. But I still do play a couple of my tracks, but usually when I hear somebody saying, “Can you play ‘Crispy Bacon’ or ‘At Night’ or this or that,” but usually I don’t play too much of my tracks. Not very much. Not very often.
In the past when you’ve made albums, you’ve made them more like a traditional album, in that you recorded it together, whereas this one it’s a collection of your recent singles, isn’t it?
Yes. But I think I think that though the full box is very catering to DJs, and even though people might say it’s club tracks – and I agree with that – you can still listen to it as sort of an album. Sometimes, if you put too many techno tracks one after the other, you feel like it’s just another packed dance floor, or overloaded… Avicii or something [laughs]. And it has nothing to do with what an album is. But because there were so many tracks that I released last year, we find, with the good ones in the right sequence, it still sounds like an album. So, to have an introduction, a middle, and an end: I think it works. I even listen to it sometimes as an album, the same stuff on the track list. And I find it quite coherent. So I think even though it’s a collection of tracks I’ve released before, it sounds a bit like an album. I would do an album that way.
“I’ve been working on this book and movie for the last seven years”
Have you got any desire to get back into playing live?
Not yet, because at the moment, I’m working on a movie, so I’ve been writing a script – not based on the book, but related. Basically, it will be called Electrochoc too but it’s a completely removed adaptation. It’s a pure fiction, even though the guy’s going to become a DJ, and he’ll cross some of the things that are crossed in my life, but it’s not to tell my story. It’s just a story about somebody who’s very, very passionate about music and will become a DJ.
So I’ve been working on this for the last seven years, and it looks like we’re going to shoot the movie early next year. So, I’m going to take six, seven months’ break from deejaying to work on the movie properly. And after that, once the movie is done, maybe, maybe I will work on a live show. I don’t know what ideas it will involve, or what I might do. A live show is definitely one option, but I’m not sure yet. I need to do the film first, and then I’m going to have a bit more time to think about what I want to do.
I’m quite curious about the film. How closely would the story link to yours? Is it going to start off with the guy being over in London in the early eighties Blitz Club era like you did?
The guy… you have to understand, it’s a pure fiction, so, in the movie, there’s no Tribal Gathering, no Hacienda, there’s no Carl Cox or Jeff Mills. There are DJs at clubs, and then there’s music – the music is real – but apart from that, everything is invented. Yet, the guy… well, it will follow the life of a guy from the age of twelve until he’s about forty, from when he’s going to become a DJ and when he’s going to the UK, it’ll be around 1988 in England.
Hopefully there’s going to be quite a lot of panache and the kind of mood that you read in the book. But then again, the idea of the movie is not to tell the real story of house and techno. I really want to be free from that. It’s more like an inside thing about passion. For me, the book is very much about passion as well, besides the fact that it’s telling a lot of the story of the whole techno scene. A big part of myself in there talking about my passion for music and involves techno music and stuff, and this is what I want to concentrate on with the guy in the story.
Have you cast it yet?
I have the main actor. I’ve got the four main actors, in fact.
Can you say who they’re going to be?
No. Because we haven’t cast the English side yet, this is what we’re doing at the moment. We’re still looking for those actors at the moment.
I don’t think anyone’s actually made the film to faithfully document this period yet. It’s quite interesting that you’re doing it, and quite a challenge.
I think the story’s really nice. I really like this story we wrote, and it’s like a proper cinema movie!
OK, just going back to the book… I thought it was quite interesting that you talk about going to Detroit, and you actually talk about the racial politics in Detroit a little bit, which is quite rare. You talk about one techno party [with black DJs] getting closed down while Richie Hawtin’s still playing next door, and you don’t know whether that’s the police being racist or what. Do you think that’s an area of dance music that’s been ignored or forgotten about, the different experiences of black and white people?
Well, Richie Hawtin was such an important part of the story of techno music, but I think when I first went to Detroit, I finally understood and I could put into better words into the way I was feeling regarding their music and why Detroit music was so strong compared to other places that were making techno as well. I think people these people were truly struggling, and I think by being European and having lived the way we lived, either in France or in England, we have certain differences from one another, but not as much as the American people, especially the ones who live in Detroit — where Detroit is a fuckup.
I mean, the city is really strange. It is like a war zone, especially it was going back to those times, I don’t know what it’s like now, I haven’t been for quite a while. But as being a European, I could not understand the real struggle regarding the color of your skin. I could not understand. I remember very well, when I was working on Radio Nova before I went to Detroit, and one guy from the Wu-Tang Clan came and did an interview for Radio Nova, and he was very, very hard against white people, and I got very hurt, because I thought, man, you’ve got to understand, if you come to Europe, this is who buys your records – white kids do buy your records and they dig your music – so maybe you should have a bit more respect for them.
“In Detroit it was never hedonistic. It was about surviving. Feeding your family.”
But I didn’t have the whole perspective of what had really happened in America for quite a lot of black people. And when I got to Detroit, knowing much more when you’re explained everything from Public Enemy and, and with Motown, and the way people were trying to put them in show business and stuff like that, and all these things: the way they see their music and this whole thing about faith in what you’re doing, where if you’re born black in America, where your thoughts about faith might be different, with thoughts that it might not be much better but it can’t be worse. But this, we don’t have this over here.
We can’t understand it unless you go there and you talk to the people and you understand, and this is maybe why Detroit music was a bit stronger and had much more feeling into it, because you could feel the struggle within their music. But I had to go there to understand that. And I think it’s really important to tell the people over here. I think it’s very, very important. Making music, for a lot of American people, even before techno, when you think of jazz and when you think of blues — it was a way to actually escape and try to survive. We don’t have their faith. We don’t have a faith as strong as this over here. So, yes, very important to tell, especially to techno kids, who always in Europe are very hedonistic, where in Detroit it was never hedonistic. It was about surviving. Feeding your family.
In some ways, I actually think in Europe, that history is known better than it is in America, where they’ve got this new love affair with EDM, which – the way they tell it, they think it’s come from Europe rather than that it’s got its roots in their own land.
There’s this really funny story that I tell in the book, of Mike Pickering going to Chicago back in 1990 or ’89 or something like that, playing strictly Chicago house music. And there were a lot of white kids going up to him and saying, “Wow, this music is amazing. Where is this coming from? Is it from England?” And Mike would say, “Actually, it’s two blocks down the road, mate. This was made in Chicago.” And the kids didn’t know. It’s really weird how ninety percent of the kids that listen to EDM think this is European music, when it’s all coming from their own country. They have no knowledge of that.
It makes you think there’s two countries in one place, doesn’t it? So… I don’t suppose you’ve got any plans to a sequel to the book, do you?
No, I think somebody else should do it. It would be nice if the book tour does well, because I think the content is in interesting. I hope it’s going to do well, because I did fight to get it published in England. No, I don’t think I will write the next one. I wasn’t even supposed to write the last chapter, which I’m very happy about, the last chapter, even thought it’s maybe a little bit darker, a little bit stronger. No, now I’m doing the film, and then after that, I’m going to make some music, and then that’s it. And take it easy [laughs]. Somebody else has to write a book!
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